Analysis of ‘The Last of Sheila’

The Last of Sheila is a 1973 murder mystery film written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and produced and directed by Herbert Ross. It stars James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, James Coburn, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welsh.

Sondheim and Perkins were inspired by the scavenger hunt games they used to play with their friends back in the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games we see Clinton Greene (Coburn) play with his guests in the film–Philip Dexter (Mason), Alice Wood (Welsh), Lee Parkman (Hackett), Anthony Wood (McShane), Christine (Cannon), and Tom Parkman (Benjamin)–aboard his yacht on the French Riviera. These games involve searching around such places as hotels, etc., to find clues to solve tricky mysteries.

But the game Clinton wants to play–“The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” (named after his late wife [played by Yvonne Romain], a Hollywood gossip columnist who was mysteriously killed, a year before the film’s main action starts, by a hit-and-run killer…one of the guests on Clinton’s yacht)–involves real pieces of gossip about his guests, embarrassing secrets that, in some cases, provoke a guest or two to try to murder him.

Here are some quotes (WARNING–SPOILERS AHEAD!):

“Sheila. Sheila, come on back!” –Clinton

“What do you mean, what do I mean? This is the same b-group that was at your house the night Sheila got bounced to the hedges.” –Christine, on the phone with Clinton

“Darling, I must hang up now. One of my cast is peeing on my leg. Something Garbo never did, even at her moodiest. Bye now.” –Philip, with a little girl sitting on his lap

“Who did this room? Parker Brothers?” –Lee, on entering Clinton’s yacht

“What a game! And now, Tom gets to write it; Philip gets to direct it; and what’s-her-face, I mean, ah, my new client, Miss Alice Wood, gets to thrill you as Sheila Greene. Who rose from call girl to columnist… Ha-ha-ha.” –Christine, to Tom and Lee

“Well, I’m thinking of calling it…don’t be shocked, now: The Last of Sheila. Fox is interested, Paramount‘s interested. The perfect woman’s picture. Every bit as big as Love Story.” –Clinton

“Do you think we’ll ever hear the last of Sheila?” –Lee

“There’s nothing worse than a hustler with bad timing.” –Christine, on Anthony’s failed attempt to be made an associate producer for Clinton’s ‘Last of Sheila’ film project

Christine: [while suntanning] I have to do 25 minutes on my stomach.
Alice: To make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back, last night?

Christine: I’m here because I’ve got a client to keep, and one to get. What’s your excuse?
Lee: I’m trying to hold on to a husband… who’s trying to hold on.
Christine: With your money?

“Honey, would you drop me down a Tab? My mouth is so dry, I feel like they could shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in it.” –Christine

Clinton Greene: [Gesturing to a small island not too far from his yacht] You like it? [They all look, while Clinton beams proudly] I love it. Tiny, tiny islands fascinate my ass. I’ve got this crazy broker in London that sends me these brochures on all the islands for sale all over the world. Little impoverished islands. A few thousand dollars cash, and you’re practically king to six shepherds and their families. Or whatever. I read every word on every island. Then you know what I do? I tear them neatly in half and drop them in the wastebasket. Then I say to myself…
Christine: [interrupting] I’m still weak, Clinton, but I’m eating solid food.
Clinton Greene: I say to myself, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to have my island speech interrupted.” [continues] I say to myself: “No, you poor people… you don’t deserve a good king like me.” That’s what I say!

Lee: Have I ever told you how sweet you were to me, when I was a child?…at Daddy’s legendary Sunday lunches.
Philip: I can still see you on Olivia de Havilland‘s lap.
Lee: It’s funny, you know, she was one of the few people that Sheila ever had anything good to say about.

“Just enough time for me to get dressed as a catamite, if I knew what it was.” –Christine, waiting to get ready to play the game and search for who has the ‘HOMOSEXUAL’ card

“Do you think there’s a homosexual aboard the yacht?” –Lee, asking Tom

“It was more than a game. It was a private joke.” –Tom

“It was an accident! It was an accident, I swear, Clinton! I was DRINKING!” –Lee

“The last of Sheila should be an A. Hit and run doesn’t begin with an A, does it, Tom?” –Philip

“I don’t have any gloves.” –Tom, with puppets on his hands, ready to strangle Philip

“Dictate it tomorrow when you can get a secretary. You know, he killed her, she killed him.” –Christine, just after Tom’s attempted murder of Philip

“Well, I think I’ll turn in. I’m almost dead on my feet. So much to do tomorrow and still a few pages to type tonight.” –Philip, implying a warning to Tom not to make a second attempt to kill him

“In these perilous times, one can’t be too careful.” –Philip

“Honey, let me hit you with a couple of names. Yul Brynner is Clinton. Paul and Joanne as Tom and Lee! I know, I hope it has enough content for ’em. Who have I got for Alice? Oh, I know, Carly Simon. I mean the soundtrack album alone will pay for her clothes. Now, now don’t scream. Virna Lisi. No, darling, as me!” –Christine

Beyond being a witty murder mystery (which generally got positive reviews, such as this one by Roger Ebert), The Last of Sheila is also a satire of the sins of bourgeois liberal Hollywood. We’re dealing here with people who are proud and narcissistic, who enjoy spreading rumours about the faults of others. They pretend to be progressive, but really it’s all about raising their social status, trying to get back on top, not wanting to be has-beens anymore.

Sheila, who has bashed people time and time again in her gossip column over the years, doesn’t take it as well as she dishes it out; so after hearing an unwelcome remark from Clinton during a conversation at a party in the Greenes’ home in Bel Air, she storms outside and walks it off in her neighbourhood that night. A driver who is obviously extremely inebriated slams into her, kills her, then drives away. The driver’s identity isn’t known…until a year later, when Clinton invites his guests to his yacht on the Mediterranean to play his new game.

He also wishes to begin a new film project, The Last of Sheila, and is offering his guests jobs in it. Alice is an actress; Tom is a screenwriter frustrated with only doing rewrites of others’ work; Anthony is Alice’s husband and manager, and hopes to be an associate producer for the new film; Christine is a talent agent; Philip is a “has-been” director; and Lee, Tom’s wife, is…well, rich.

All of these guests have truly gossip-worthy faults, each of which is suggested as they are introduced at the beginning of the movie. Alice is seen in a gift shop, looking at things she seems tempted to sneak into her purse and walk out with. Tom is seen in a photo with Clinton, the two men seeming a bit too close and familiar with each other. Anthony, taking Alice away from annoying reporters, knocks one of them down. Christine is seen in her office, her gossipy mouth rattling off like a machine gun. Philip, directing a commercial with a group of cute little girls, has one of them sitting on his lap. Lee is seen with a drink in her hand; surprisingly, it’s just ginger ale.

One recurring theme in this film, apart from the obvious one about gossip, is that of the stark difference between appearance and reality. Those who seem good are actually bad, and vice versa. Be leery of those who would seem sleuths, when in fact they’re, in varying degrees, the guilty.

Similarly, though Clinton is offering his guests jobs for his new Sheila movie project, he’s actually exploiting their desperate need and hope to get back in the good graces of the Hollywood power establishment. He is thus the quintessential capitalist, knowing he can taunt them again and again, and get away with it. He is thus also the typical unlikeable murder victim.

Clinton’s very game for them to play involves “six pretend pieces of gossip” that are all very real, but not given to those who are guilty of those embarrassing secrets. (More spoilers ahead!) It’s his fun way of making his guests squirm.

The embarrassing secrets are printed on small, white rectangular cards saying, “You are a…SHOPLIFTER, HOMOSEXUAL, EX-CONVICT, INFORMER, LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER, and ALCOHOLIC.” These secrets thus are presented as labels, suggesting that each person guilty of such a secret is perceived as having his or her whole identity bound up in that label, when actually, these are just things that each of them at one point in his or her past was guilty of.

Alice was caught shoplifting back when she was a teen, and Philip bailed the pretty girl out…then he did other things with her. Tom, actually married to Lee and having an affair with Alice, had a brief gay fling with Clinton after Sheila was killed. Anthony has twice done time for assault. Christine gave some names to the HUAC. Lee “was AA for a while.”

So Clinton’s game, on the surface, is just a fun scavenger hunt to amuse his guests during their vacation in the south of France. But just as the job offer in the movie project–with better billing for those who score better in the game–is just what the guests need to repair their damaged careers and reputations, while it’s really just Clinton exploiting their desperation, so is the game a sadistic exploitation of their insecurities. What seems good is really bad.

Now, are any of those secrets damaging enough to their reputations to be a motive to murder Clinton? During the day, in between the nights of the hunts for the owners of the SHOPLIFTER and HOMOSEXUAL cards, Clinton and his guests are all either on the yacht or swimming by it (in the latter case, Clinton and Christine). Clinton is especially loud out there, taunting Tom and Philip about their flagging careers, while Christine alternates between singing and calling out to Vittorio (played by Pierre Rosso), the captain of the yacht’s crew, each member of which wears a white T-shirt with SHEILA printed on it.

Someone turns on the yacht’s propellors, almost killing Christine, who’s unlucky enough to have been floating too close to them. There’s no reason for anyone to want to kill her: as she herself later observes, they aren’t in Hollywood, where her informing ruined the careers of many. Clinton must have been the intended target, given what a few guests have already surmised about the cards’ secrets.

But which of the guests has a secret embarrassing enough for him or her to want to kill Clinton before it is outed? Philip’s having helped out teen Alice…in more ways than one…is a strong motive, but then there was that hit-and-run killing of Sheila.

Someone will demonstrate that strong enough motive to murder Clinton during the scavenger hunt on a small island with a castle in which a group of monks once lived, centuries ago. Indeed, Clinton et al will be wearing monks’ robes as they search for clues to determine who has the HOMOSEXUAL card.

What’s interesting about the monastery scene is how it symbolizes what I said earlier about seeming good while secretly being sinful. According to a brochure read by Anthony, the monastery was inhabited by “perverts, onanists, catamites, and other riff-raff of the day.” Seeming devotees to God were really engaging in sexually transgressive behaviour, hence Clinton’s choice of the island for the hunt for the owner of the HOMOSEXUAL card.

Clinton and the others will wear monks’ robes, symbolically hiding their sins in holiness. Clinton’s “island speech,” given earlier on his yacht, demonstrates the narcissism of the capitalist who would imperialistically buy and own an island, but then decline to, feeling he’s too good to be the king of the lowly, poor inhabitants of that island.

In this castle of supposed holiness, the murder is committed, the ultimate contrast between seeming saintliness and actual wickedness. Furthermore, there’s the contrast between the apparent murder of Clinton (his face bashed in with a large candlestick while he sits in the priest’s box), and his actual murder (having been stabbed from behind with an ice pick).

Back in the yacht the next day, after discovering Clinton’s body, him apparently killed from a loose rock having fallen and hit him on the head, there is the first of two solutions as to how he was really killed, and by whom. This solution, provided by Tom, is the seeming explanation, as opposed to the actual solution given by Philip at the end of the movie.

The contrast between what seems to be and what is is made especially clear by what a nice man Tom seems to be, the clever sleuth, and the man he really is, as discovered at the end of the movie: not so nice, and not all that clever, either.

An example of how Tom can make himself into the ‘nice guy’ is by claiming that Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card applies to him. Of all the six cards, this one is the least damaging to one’s reputation (the fact that the screenwriters were both LGBT men helps in this regard). What’s more, Clinton, surely aware of how the gossip would fly out everywhere, seemingly isn’t worried about people finding out about his gay affair with Tom; we even see him caress Tom’s cheek publicly, on the yacht, when telling him that his card would be played out last, on Saturday.

As of the beginning of the 1970s, progressives in significant numbers were no longer joining conservatives in regarding homosexuality as a vice. We can see the Hollywood liberal hypocrisy here as evident in Anthony’s reaction to Tom’s claim to that card. By claiming the HOMOSEXUAL card, Tom is “in the clear”: he needn’t fear the nastier labels of the remaining cards.

Why does Tom have “the exclusive right to that card?” Anthony angrily asks. When Tom, in his answer, implies the possibility that it could also apply to Anthony, the latter senses a slur on his manhood–hence the hypocritical Hollywood liberal attitude to homosexuality: ‘it’s OK to be gay, but don’t call me one.’

As we go through who lays claim to the other cards–Alice, after being pressured by Tom, irritably admits to being the SHOPLIFTER, and Christine to being the INFORMER–the tension builds. The tension is especially high, since Tom has revealed that his card says, “You are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER.”

It’s implied that Tom has been hoping to label Anthony with this card, and thus to make him seem Clinton’s murderer; certainly this is what Anthony thinks Tom is doing. But Anthony triumphantly claims the EX-CONVICT card, leaving the LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card for Philip, and HIT-AND-RUN for…

Lee tearfully breaks the tension by admitting that when her car hit Sheila, she was “too drunk to drive.” She also believes that, after confronting Clinton in the priest’s box and begging him to stop the game (with a confused look on her face from hearing Clinton’s voice cruelly refusing to stop, but also from seeing his motionless body in the darkness, his lips not seeming to be moving, either), she accidentally killed him by smashing open the door to the confessional and hitting him in the face with that big candlestick.

So, the guilty party seems to have been sought in Anthony, but has been found in Lee, who, sobbing, leaves the others, taking with her a bottle of Jim Beam, and goes off to her cabin to drink her guilt and shame away. Later, she is discovered in the bathtub with slashed wrists.

Remember, though, that nothing is as it seems in this movie. Anthony may have a criminal record, but he is guilty of no wrong-doing in this story. The murder mystery only seems to have been solved. Tom has come across as a nice guy, and as gay; but he’s actually having an affair with Alice, and with Lee dead, Tom is free to have Alice and to inherit Lee’s estate of $5,000,000. Finally, we are only assuming that Lee has slashed her own wrists.

It’s far less unpleasant to think that the deaths of Sheila and Clinton Greene are the result of accidental killings, and that Lee’s death is a tragic suicide brought on by overwhelming guilt, than it is to contemplate that these deaths (at least two of them) were deliberate murders. The real killer of Clinton, imitating his voice in the confessional when provoking Lee, is projecting his murderous intent onto her by pretending she cared only about the damage to her car when it hit Sheila.

Given the nasty gossip that Sheila was spouting over the years in her column, much (if not almost all) of which must have inspired Clinton’s gossip cards, Lee’s not having seen Sheila when she hit her could have been unconsciously motivated, a Freudian skid, if you will.

Removing the exploitative Greene dynasty, so to speak, from the lives of the guests on the yacht (not the mention Clinton’s crew) might have been more liberating had the ‘removers’ shown more solidarity and comradeship. Instead, their motives are of pure selfishness: they’ll all make the Sheila film without Clinton, Tom will get Alice as well as Lee’s money, and none of them will have to put up with Clinton’s verbal bullying anymore.

In the end, the character with by far the most shameful secret–LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER–is the one to get to the truth of what has happened to Clinton and to Lee. Philip learns that the killer dropped a cigarette in the priest’s box, making Clinton bend down to get it while the killer pulled out an ice pick and stabbed Clinton in the back. The killer then imitated Clinton’s voice, fooling Christine and Lee.

Next, Philip discovers a photo, put in plain view on a wall by the yacht bar, of all six guests meticulously posed by Clinton under the letters of SHEILA as painted on the side of his yacht. Philip is under the S, Alice under H, Lee under E, Anthony under I, Christine under L, and Tom under A. Philip also remembers that on the first day, Clinton said they don’t have to move (e.g., search around the city or the monks’ castle to find the clues to everyone’s cards) to play the game…if they’re smart enough.

Philip also remembers that Tom crumpled his card on the first day, while his HIT-AND-RUN KILLER card is not crumpled. The first hunt was for Philip’s SHOPLIFTER card, and the second hunt was for Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card. These two initial letters spell out SH, leading Philip to speculate that Lee’s EX-CONVICT card, Anthony’s INFORMER card, Christine’s LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card (the redundant word LITTLE was needed to provide the L)…would spell out SHEIL…

But then there’s Tom’s…HIT-AND-RUN KILLER? The last of Sheila should be an A, not an H. Then we recall Tom’s crumpled card, which actually was ALCOHOLIC, a most fitting secret for Lee. Tom thus is the murderer of both her and Clinton.

Now, even though Philip has proven to be the truth-telling sleuth of the movie, this doesn’t mean that he’s completely innocent, either. Never is what seems to be true actually the truth. He is the one, by his own admission, who turned on the propellor while Clinton was splashing about in the water beside the yacht. Tom, meanwhile, had Guido (played by Serge Citon) to vouch for his alibi, and thus Tom could be encouraged to carry on with his own murderous plans after Philip’s failure.

Just before Tom attempts to kill Philip, he says that Clinton’s crew are all ashore celebrating the death of their boss (i.e., no one is onboard to stop Tom from killing Philip…or so Tom thinks). But of course the killing of Clinton can in no way even symbolize a socialist revolution (Clinton’s crew are really no better off now than they were before); a bourgeois has killed a bourgeois, and Philip, Christine et al are going to get rich making Clinton’s film without him.

Instead of seeking justice for Clinton and Lee, Philip and Christine (the latter having come up from her cabin on the yacht and, just in time, interrupted Tom’s attempt on Philip’s life) decide to blackmail Tom into using all of Lee’s money to finance the Sheila film. Tom won’t even get to write the screenplay: Philip wants the first draft to be written by an outsider. Tom will have to do rewrites again. What’s more, Philip that very night will type up a sealed letter to his lawyer–to be opened in the event of his death–exposing everything Tom has done, if he ever tries to kill Philip again.

The violence we see in this movie, that of bourgeois against bourgeois, shows not only the hypocrisy of the narcissistic Hollywood liberal–who would seem to be doing right, but who in reality is as exploitive as any other capitalist–but also the poisonous lack of solidarity between people. There isn’t even a sense of loyalty in the guests’ marriages, with these adulterers and adulteresses.

All these narcissists care about is rising up, so they have no qualms about stepping on others, in the forms of murder or gossip, to achieve their ascent. Small wonder we hear Bette Midler‘s song “Friends” as an ironic ending to a film with so much alienation in it.

You gotta have friends, Tom.

Tom had some friends, but they’re gone…

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